The State of the Music: or, Is classical music really as bad off as I keep saying it is?

Throughout my posts on this blog, I have taken a particularly fatalistic view towards the apparent “decline” of classical music.  I hadn’t quite realized this until sparking a super interesting, thought-provoking comment thread on my post What Not to Wear, in which G. H. Bone (whose blog offers really intelligent, fascinating analyses of all sorts of music that you should definitely check out) described a classical concert experience very different from my own, and pointed out the role of media and technology in disseminating classical music to the masses:

I’m highly suspicious of the idea that classical music, in general, is in a parlous state, and that audiences are rapidly dying off.  There are huge audiences for classical music.  The problem that I have, for example, is that in order to get in to concerts, I have to book up so early (sometimes more than a year ahead) to be sure of a good seat.  At the same time, the availability of music (including obscure and specialist music) on CD is absolutely booming, and there’s a huge amount of TV and radio programming about music that quite simply was not available in previous decades.  I don’t say that everything is rosy, but whenever I hear people lamenting the frightful state of classical music, I have to say they seem to be talking of a world I simply don’t recognise!

This comment really got me thinking, and inspired me to look at the changing musical landscape in a more positive light.  Though in my own experience not once have I feared a classical concert selling out before I could purchase tickets the day of, there are certainly many ensembles that do play for a sold-out audience.  And though classical concert attendance is statistically lower than it was ten years ago, iTunes and Spotify and YouTube have made classical music more accessible than ever before, with the digital audience counteracting or perhaps even reversing the decline in live-concert attendance.  Yo-Yo Ma has been interviewed on the Colbert Report, a privilege usually reserved for pop culture icons.  The London Symphony Orchestra performed in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony for an audience of hundreds of millions.  Gustavo Dudamel has more likes on his Facebook page than the Spice Girls do on theirs.  With all this in mind, is the classical music situation really as bad off as the naysayers (myself included) seem to think? 

The short answer is: no.  Classical music isn’t going to just up and die.  Even if some global economic catastrophe were to cause all professional orchestras to go by the wayside, as long films need scoring and hymns need singing and students need teaching, there will be classical music.  And listen to this: the Cleveland Orchestra recently reported a 65% increase in student attendance at their concerts, and their 2012-2013 winter box office stats were off the charts.  That is some incredible news.  Classical music is alive for sure, and in cases like Cleveland, it’s thriving.

But we can’t ignore the bad news, either.  Let’s not forget the Philadelphia Orchestra’s bankruptcy, or the strikes, lockouts, disputes, and pay cuts faced by the musicians of Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Minnesota, San Francisco, St. Paul.  The situation with orchestra finances doesn’t seem to be quite as dire in Europe as in the U.S., possibly because of an inherent appreciation for classical music built into much of European culture that simply doesn’t exist over here — but orchestras all over the world are facing changes and challenges that many are unprepared to deal with.  The Greek government just shut down the country’s three national classical music ensembles.  Granted, the Greek economy is in pretty bad shape, to put it mildly, but still — this is not good.  Not good at all.

I guess the reason I’m so pessimistic about the future of classical music is because, at risk of sounding cheesy and egocentric, I am the future of classical music.  I’m a music school student with two years to go (or four years, should I end up in grad school) before I have to try and land a job — ideally, playing in an orchestra.  But it’s really, really scary to sit in a practice room preparing orchestral excerpts for those impending professional auditions when A) there might not be any orchestras to audition for in two years’ time; B) if there are, they won’t/can’t pay you all that much; and C) if you do manage to win an orchestral seat, you have little job security because a strike or lockout could be looming at any moment.  Even music education isn’t a safe field anymore, with music programs being cut from schools at a ridiculous rate.  From my perspective, things look pretty bleak.  Which is why we — the classical performers of the future — need things to change, and why we ourselves need to enact those changes.

I’m not calling for a revolution, just evolution.  Classical music seems to exist in a magical realm of stasis, which is great in that every classical concert is a very distinct experience full of grandeur and awe.  Unfortunately, in many cases — though certainly and thankfully not all, as demonstrated by Cleveland et al. — the only people apparently attracted to buy tickets for grandeur and awe are the exact same people who were buying those tickets fifty years ago.  They were college kids then, and classical music was popular music — but now they’re getting on in years, and as their physical ability to attend concerts diminishes, their seats are not being filled by new listeners — at least, not at any sustainable rate.  It would seem, then, that the best way to fill those seats with new listeners is to appeal to those new listeners.  Give them something they can relate to, talk about, cheer for.  What exactly that something is — well, we still need to figure that out.  Until we do, this problem of audience is really at the core of all the issues, financial and otherwise, plaguing the classical music scene.  It’s a challenge, but I have faith that we can take it on.  Classical music won’t die — because we won’t let it.

I leave you with some suggested reading: “Where We Stand,” an extraordinarily thoughtful, well-researched, and truly fascinating look at the recent history of the classical music world.  The essay, written by Greg Sandow — a musician, writer, speaker, commentator, and Juilliard professor — was compiled as required reading for a course he teaches at both Juilliard and my own school on the future of classical music.  Definitely worth checking out.


3 thoughts on “The State of the Music: or, Is classical music really as bad off as I keep saying it is?

  1. rssradliff June 28, 2013 / 4:08 am

    Reblogged this on RSSR Blog and commented:
    Classical music in America has in recent decades been in sharp decline, especially with orchestras going bankrupt and musicians striking for lack of pay and so on. But its popularity hasn’t completely diminished, in fact it’s gone up a bit recently: as it’s noted, Los Angeles conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, has more facebook likes than the Spice Girls. But classical music now fights for wider relevance: to branch out from the big concert halls that you often have to buy tickets for months in advance, and maybe even earlier than that if there’s a specific piece you’d like to hear, and move on into the wider more accessible world that ‘popular’ music was born into and now continues to dominate. In America this might be particularly difficult, as there is no strongly rooted classical culture here, unlike in Europe which has retained its historic and great orchestras and continues to expand, bringing in new composers and showcasing the great performers of our time, and always with a large and appreciative, or at least interested, audience. Classical music has grown in popularity slightly in recent years, but lacks a cultural renaissance to bring it to the fore as a staple of American life. – This post speaks to some of that: ‘It would seem, then, that the best way to fill those seats with new listeners is to appeal to those new listeners. Give them something they can relate to, talk about, cheer for. What exactly that something is — well, we still need to figure that out.’ But whatever the difficulties, ‘classical music won’t die — because we won’t let it.’

  2. TheTrebleWithMusic July 11, 2013 / 11:09 pm

    This subject is exactly why I started my blog in the first place! A place to inspire change in classical musicians now. Well done. Keep blogging.

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